Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018)
I’ve seen this film a bunch of times (and written about in on here before), and each successive time I watch it, I think I become a little less enamoured with it — not unlike the Tarantino films, whose production company is inspired by the title of this film. You remember the dance, the verve, Anna Karina’s face framed in class, almost solarised like a Man Ray print, with her big eyes. You remember Sami Frey’s nonchalance, you remember the beautiful monochrome photography, those Paris street scenes shot from a moving car, the run through the Louvre, the feeling of young lives, of being young. But there’s also this nasty little plot about them staging a heist, and they’re all really dull unlikable people at heart, and I just wonder if it’s a film about people or a film about people in films, and if it’s the latter why really should I care, at least on the third or fourth watch? Maybe some films work better when you see them once and then try to remember what you loved about them.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 October 2017)
On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.
Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)
There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017
This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015
Apologies for this remarkably brief review; I watched it in a state of half-sleep, though I found it likeable, I don’t really have much to contribute…
A jolly Italian farce modelled on Rififi and the like, in which a bunch of fairly incompetent criminals try to take on a job they’re not really equipped to do. There are some good comic turns, and it moves along at a clip.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Mario Monicelli | Writers Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amore and Mario Monicelli | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 August 2016
1932 saw two witty, urbane films featuring jewel thieves and the acting talents of Kay Francis, and this concise Warner Bros. film is not the one that has gone down in history, not least because Trouble in Paradise is one of cinema’s great achievements, directed by Ernst Lubitsch whose style Jewel Robbery is brazenly trying to command. That said, it’s certainly not without its own pleasures. For a start, there’s Kay Francis, of whose work I had hitherto been unaware, but who strikes me as a great talent (not to mention a great beauty). As Baroness Teri, her snappy repartee with William Powell’s unnamed jewel thief anchors the film. She also has a forthrightness to her manner that would make for a fine animated GIF set if I were inclined to that sort of thing and this were Tumblr. There are other actors, sure, but in truth it’s hard to remember any but the pair of them, the robber and his prey, first in the shop, then at her home, their relationship developing just as his seemingly effortless heist appears to be unravelling. It’s like an elaborate dance that the two of them undertake, such that the jewel heist plot seems an unwanted detail imposed for merely metaphorical purposes, and this is precisely how the two characters seem to treat it. It’s a film about falling in love, whether Baroness Teri with her robber, or — for me at least — the audience with Kay Francis.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director William Dieterle | Writer Erwin S. Gelsey (based on the play Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában by Ladislas Fodor) | Cinematographer Robert Kurrle | Starring Kay Francis, William Powell | Length 68 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014
Muppets Most Wanted [U] || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 5 April 2014 || My Rating likeable
The previous film based on Jim Henson’s Muppet characters (was it a ‘reboot’?) was entirely delightful and charming — and, it seems, rather successful — hence this sequel. It lacks the first film’s charming and goofy star turns by Jason Segel (who also wrote that film) and the delightful Amy Adams, and I’m not entirely convinced that Ricky Gervais as this film’s bad buy (named Mr Badguy of course) is any substitute. This is not least because it replaces the first film’s cheerfully upbeat naïveté with criminal machinations (and an evil Kermit doppelgänger), though then again I’ve never been a huge fan of Gervais’s shrill comedic talent. Tina Fey has a far more easygoing charm, yet playing a Russian prison guard is probably not exactly comedy gold either these days. Fey wrings what she can out of the broad accent, and what with Ty Burrell’s French gendarme having a similarly ridiculous verbosity, this turns out to be a film heavily reliant on silly European accents. For yes, we find the Muppets now taking their show on the road, and if it currently seems the done thing with sequels to follow a US-set film with some exotic world colour, then Muppets Most Wanted is hardly going to stray from that formula, partly because it’s interested in sending up sequels as a category (the very opening song references the tendency for sequels to be inferior). New Zealand songwriter Bret McKenzie is again on-board to help with the songs, though they are generally a little less memorable than the earlier film’s tunes, and even more guest stars show up for cameos in each successive scene (Christoph Waltz does a waltz! Usher plays an usher!). Yet whatever unevenness of tone the film has, and however threadbare the story, it’s never pursued with anything less than a vigorous single-mindedness, and there are enough gags constantly being thrown around that least some of them stick, making this to my mind a likeable if inessential sequel.
CREDITS || Director James Bobin | Writers Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin | Cinematographer Don Burgess | Starring Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey | Length 112 minutes
Following the glorious widescreen colour films of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) and particularly Le Mépris (1963), Godard returned to the American B-movie inflected black-and-white of his debut with Bande à part. There’s a freewheeling energy to this film which is delightful, though there’s still plenty of recognisable Godard themes and obsessions.
If À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the nouvelle vague, then I am inclined to believe that this film marks one of the last. It makes a connection in its style to that first film, but also has traces of the changes that had already taken place in French cinema. There are references to other films from nouvelle vague filmmakers which had already taken their place in the mainstream, most prominently Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), whose title theme is heard twice. Then there’s the brief scene where our protagonists walk past a shop called Nouvelle Vague, the name now co-opted to commerce. Clearly within only five years, the New Wave was no longer particularly new.
The plot itself, like the monochromatic look, also harks back to Godard’s debut. It’s another crime-based story, lifted this time quite literally from an American pulp novel, featuring the kind of slightly incompetent would-be gangsters that are a mainstay of the genre. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are young and bored, living at the edges of Paris. They meet Odile (Anna Karina) at school and hatch a plan to steal money from her wealthy family. There’s a hint that the plan has been hijacked by Arthur’s own criminal family, but as ever Godard isn’t really interested in the specifics.
Bande à part is primarily about suburban kids and their experience of the big city. Aside from an all-too-brief scene in the Louvre, one of the few unambiguously happy moments in their lives, this is not tourist Paris. It’s a film of the outer limits, the unremarkable streets clogged with traffic and pollution, the down-at-heel cafes and the semi-rural backwaters on their doorstep. They sit in the woods by a river reading the papers, which promise a world of crime and murder that they aren’t a part of. US pop culture, as peddled by its movies, promises something different, so Odile will only accept Arthur’s Lucky Strike cigarettes over Franz’s local ones, before asking for a Coca-Cola. They play-act scenes from movies, too, like Arthur’s comically melodramatic turn pretending to be Billy the Kid, shot in the street, which is reprised later on, if less comedically.
Then there’s the dance sequence — ostensibly of another American import, the Madison — which they perform together in a cafe. It’s become one of the iconic scenes of the 1960s New Wave and is one of the most famous in Godard’s filmography, and for good reason. It’s a bracing, seemingly spontaneous expression of youthful joie de vivre, and yet encodes everything the film wants to express about individuality. The three protagonists dance it side-by-side, not looking at one another, each in their own space. Every so often the music cuts out and in voiceover Godard speaks of each one’s feelings, emphasising their outsider status, to one another as much as to the (fictional, movie-inflected) society they want so desperately to be part of.
If Karina’s presence recalls her earlier role in Vivre sa vie, she’s here playing a quite different character. The camera still loves her, but she’s not the wearily glamorous Nana but the cheerfully naïve Odile, not confident about either how to wear her hair or how to react to the bad ideas of those around her. By the time she turns to the camera on the Métro to deliver some existential doubts, it’s no longer clear that she wants to be part of this band that Arthur and Franz have created with her. It’s Brasseur who impresses most as Arthur, and its his charm that carries the plot forward.
The film’s set-up feels like a hundred more recent American indie movies, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s title was purloined by Quentin Tarantino for his production company. Yet Bande à part still retains a real vivacity and a charm that makes it one of Godard’s most accessible works. From here onwards, the films he made became progressively more opaque and difficult, with frank political messages and an ornery idiosyncrasy to their construction. In some ways that’s why this film feels like the close of a chapter, and a winding down of a certain mythology.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 14 September 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The final shot of Bande à part promises a Technicolor widescreen extravaganza set in the new world. Though Alphaville (1965), with its monochrome sci-fi modernism, didn’t exactly deliver that, yet Pierrot le Fou (1965) seems to possess some of that quality. I won’t be discussing either (primarily because I don’t own them, though they’re both fantastic in different ways, and well worth watching), so shall be moving on to Week End (1967), which seems to mark the apocalyptic denouement of an entire era and is maybe where the protagonists of Bande à part really ended up.
I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.
The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.
Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.
Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.
It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.
FILM REVIEW Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and at home on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Sunday 25 August 2013)